Visvaldas Matijošaitis, Gitanas Nausėda, Saulius Skvernelis
© DELFI montažas

Potential candidates in the presidential election have begun talking about social segregation and strengthening the regions and this helps them draw attention, notes political scientist Tomas Janeliūnas and economist Romas Lazutka. "For now this is only a warm-up, trying to form a positive opinion about oneself. They are using those topics. [...] And currently the talks about prices, social segregation, poverty, labour and emigration are popular," T. Janeliūnas told LRT.lt.

Speaking up for reducing social segregation

With a year and a half left to the Lithuanian presidential elections, citizens currently most would want to vote for Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, he is followed by economist Gitanas Nausėda and Kaunas Mayor Visvaldas Matijošaitis, a number of surveys show.

Gradually the public begins to hear the names of potential candidates to the post of president and the candidates themselves have begun to clarify their positions regarding social, economics, foreign policy, law enforcement and other topics. A number of potential candidates have focused much on social issues. According to political scientists and economists, it will be fashionable to speak of this at the start of campaigning.

"For a long time I have held the view that the economic pie has to be baked and then divided up. The more I think, the more I realise that in fact you cannot always talk about baking the pie without reaching the splitting up. This is why I particularly agree that in recent days I have been supporting social decisions that are directed not to encouraging business competitiveness, but rather reducing social segregation and perhaps to a portion of the public this appears acceptable and worth supporting," G. Nausėda, one of the individuals viewed as a potential candidate, told LRT.lt. That said he intends to announce whether he will run for president only in a year.

According to economist, professor R. Lazutka, Lithuania is struggling with income inequality, poverty and emigration, which is why politicians and potential candidates will be talking about the topics during presidential campaigning in an effort to attract attention.

"Regarding G. Nausėda I have already written on Facebook when he spoke in support of raising the minimum wage. I guessed already then that he will run as a candidate. If you read all his statements over the past two or more years, everything was in the opposite direction," R. Lazutka notes.

According to journalist Rytis Staselis, reducing poverty is truly a prominent topic, however the main question is how it should be resolved.

"Can this be resolved by "fleecing" the middle class which earns around a thousand euro per month through increased taxation and then redistributing to those earning even less? Or will some other decisions be found which no-one is talking about yet? Overall reducing poverty and social segregation was the main motif of incumbent President Dalia Grybauskaitė's second term campaigning. What changed? Slogans are just that, I would prefer more detailed analysis and new ideas," R. Staselis told LRT.lt.

Criticising R. Dargis' proposal to turn to the regions

Among the potential candidates for the coming 2019 presidential elections we also have Lithuanian Confederation of Industrialists head Robertas Dargis. According to lrytas.lt, R. Dargis himself states he has yet to make up his mind, however he is already considering ideas which would be needed for Lithuania's breakthrough.

"What real is in discussions, what would need to be talked about and where in my opinion the state is currently weak; I am convinced that regional recovery and regional economic strength would be greatly impacted by increased municipal autonomy. In principle I am convinced that municipalities are the basis of our country's strength.

If we have a strong municipal system, with strong and responsible people in it working to the benefit of society, various municipalities could be a strong basis for the state's growth and rise," R. Dargis said during the Lietuva Tiesiogiai TV show on Lietuvos Rytas television.

Journalist R. Staselis thinks that strengthening the regions is an idée fixe because first it is necessary to know how to strengthen them. "We are seeing a natural phenomenon across the world where large cities attract. In this respect I would agree with Kęstutis Girnius' idea that if we have an opportunity, it would likely be necessary to make our major cities more attractive than London or Dublin. Perhaps this is a better solution than artificially pumping funds into regional infrastructure. Currently there are repaired schools and vocational centres, repaired for EU funds, but there's a lack of students or people willing to work there. Thus hearing such a thesis [regarding strengthening the regions], I would like to hear further statements explaining the thesis because it is not in line with current realities," R. Staselis said.

Economist R. Lazutka is also critical of the proposal to turn to the regions.

"The train has probably already left regarding this. In the end market economics are focused on capital and economic capacities. Even in the countries which did not experience the Soviet era we have large cities, megalopolises where it is inconvenient to live because they keep growing and even in demographic states struggle to rein in the process because economic power concentrates there and you can talk all you want about regional development or funding, but businessmen care about clients and partners, thus they set up much faster next to the Ukmergė highway in Vilnius, rather than the regions or smaller towns. This is because the latter lack clients and now even labour because of emigration.

Hence we should probably come to terms with this unless we can develop public transport that people could work in the major cities and travel 30-50km to work by bus. Those who wish to work in Vilnius do not necessarily purchase real estate here because they cannot afford it. Services are also more expensive here. Thus they could come and work in Vilnius, but return to the regions in the evening. However for this we need a cheap, flexible and convenient public transport system because you cannot keep going by car – fuel is becoming more expensive, insurance and such," R. Lazutka said.

Nevertheless the economist believes that politicians will continue to speculate regarding the regions because there is a clear problem, clear poverty in the regions and decline of population counts. "Of course they take out the card and talk about it, but what can they propose? Attract investment and create more convenient conditions? These are little prayers without any specifics," R. Lazutka added.

Not speaking of what a head of state should

Institute of International Relations and Political Science political scientist T. Janeliūnas tells LRT.lt that the potential presidential candidates are choosing the topics which interest people and are trying to thus attract attention.

"In this case you cannot really blame them not talking about what a president should because this is not yet the topic of their presidential campaign. For now this is just a warmup, trying to form a positive opinion of themselves. They are employing the topics they feel strong in, capable of making a statement and attracting attention. Currently it is a fairly rational strategy to talk about painful problems," T. Janeliūnas told LRT.lt.

The political scientist notes that the presidential candidates overall often discuss topics which are not within the president's prerogative. "This is probably an issue for all candidates running for specific positions, but talking about the functions of other institutions. We likely can never escape this because the topics which are typical for a given position are not always interesting. Presidential candidates always focus on economics, social issues and domestic problems. People also choose not based on how the candidates could accomplish their functions as head of state, but based on how they trust the politician in general, including their overall understanding of domestic policy, economics and social questions," the political scientist explained.

According to him, the topics can still change over the coming year, but currently talks about prices, social segregation, overall poverty levels, Lithuania's exhaustion due to a lack of labour and productiveness are popular. Emigration is apparently also still a very relevant topic.

"The social question group is the most painful, sensitive and attracts the most attention. The second category is security questions, which come much closer to the president's functions. The Russian threat, diminished as it is compared to recent years, remains. Also internal threats – corruption, economic risks. [...] Other questions can be raised if they appear due to some specific circumstance or event," T. Janeliūnas commented.

R. Lazutka also states that the topics may depend on the economic circumstances. For example how and how fast prices will rise and such. "Much can change. Say unemployment appears to currently no longer be a major issue because there is now more talk about a lack of labour, but if the economy falters and unemployment rises, it would be talked about. But in essence there is a fundamental social questions. Lithuania is struggling to cope with it, policy was more one of improving business conditions and the expectation that economic growth will inherently resolve poverty issues. It is now clear that is not the case," he stated.

While the president's authority is mostly linked to foreign policy, T. Janeliūnas says that foreign policy questions are less interesting to voters.

"Perhaps there will also be talk about foreign policy, but no-one will care about it. It is an interesting paradox – while the president has to mostly focus on relations with foreign states, the EU, participates in summit meetings, nevertheless there is little attention to foreign policy matters in the electoral campaign and it does not interest the public. Even D. Grybauskaitė, who is strong in foreign policy, her main goals were based on domestic policy – reducing corruption, during the second term – raising social questions. She always broadcast this attention and it helped her maintain attention," T. Janeliūnas told LRT.lt.

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